David Roberts

David Roberts

Professor David Roberts, Head of the School of English at Birmingham City University

It’s not often that a new opera is described as one of the arts events of the year, but Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, commissioned for performance at Covent Garden in February,has already generated a fever of media interest. You might wonder how anyone could write an opera about a character like Anna Nicole Smith, a stripper turned glamour model and actress who married an octogenarian and died of a drug overdose. But the answer’s simple: her life is the stuff of drama. In fact, it’s remarkable how much she had in common with other women who have become part of our folklore.

I was asked to show how when I was commissioned by the Royal Opera House to write a 1500-word programme essay for the production, which opens on February 17th. As usual, they wanted something lively but well-informed, and we agreed on the eye-catching title, ‘Five Hundred Years of Tragic Bimbos.’ The publications editor told me that it would complement a piece they’ve commissioned on fame from the editor of Heat magazine!
It’s a fascinating business, writing for the ROH. The association goes back to 2008. They were anxious to find someone who could write a piece on fairy tales for their Christmas production of Hansel and Gretel. As the School of English website revealed, I was teaching a module on fairy tales at the time, so our broker was undoubtedly Google. The brief was to write a piece with the themes of the production in mind, but not necessarily the opera itself. They liked that first piece, and other commissions followed. Now we’ve got into the routine of my looking at the upcoming season and suggesting a few ideas. They tend to choose one fairly close to their deadline, so suggestions are not to be made lightly.

In the case of Anna Nicole I had speculated about a piece on what I called ‘tragic Cinderellas’ – girls who made it to the top and then, in many cases, all the way back down again. I thought about showgirls like Nell Gwyn and Marilyn Monroe, aristocrats like Lady Hamilton and Princess Diana, and figures from mythology like Semele. Rather to my alarm, just before the Christmas holiday the ROH asked me to write it in time for the early January deadline. For me, keeping to deadlines is a matter of honour, so I wrote it that night, left it for a few days, then sent it straight after Christmas.

I came to the conclusion that our cultural obsession with these women can best be explained by Clark Gable’s infamous summary of Marilyn Monroe’s appeal: ‘she makes a man feel proud to be a man,’ for better or worse. I am sure that some ROH patrons, if they are not too shocked by the opera to read the programme, will be offended by some of the comparisons I draw. On past experience, the odd newspaper critic can be relied on to quote from a programme essay, partly because it’s an easy source of copy for someone writing in a hurry. This time they might take issue.

As well as being rather good publicity for the University and providing evidence of much sought-after REF ‘impact’, writing for the ROH has the advantage of allowing me to tease out ideas in a fairly relaxed format that might be developed into academic work later on. Last year I wrote a piece for the production of Handel’s Tamerlano that explored changing representations of Tamburlaine in English drama, and that’s an idea I’m currently working into a journal article.

As well as all those benefits, of course, it is simply an enormous privilege to collaborate with a world-class organisation like the Royal Opera House.

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David Roberts

David Roberts

Faculty of Performance, Media and English at Birmingham City University
David Roberts

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